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Center for Media & Social Impact
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This year’s conference, “Building the Story Experience,” marked the 10th anniversary of Media That Matters. It highlighted the Center’s important role serving as a resource for social impact media makers while celebrating the community’s ongoing success and innovation.
This year’s conference opened with a keynote discussion between Center Creative Director Caty Borum Chattoo and guest speaker Alden Stoner, the Vice President of Social Action Film Campaigns at Participant Media. Stoner introduced some of Participant Media’s most significant films in an opening sizzle reel, including “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” “Middle of Nowhere,” and “An Inconvenient Truth.” Then she took the audience through the stages of developing a social action film campaign.
The process of developing campaigns, much like in independent media, begins with research into and discovery of the issues related to and raised by the film. Stoner and her team look for the best ways to integrate the campaign with the film’s social context, engage primary stakeholders like NGOs, foundations, and partner organizations, and reach and inspire and target audiences. All of this knowledge is then distilled down to create a coherent issue- and film-specific theory of change, which serves as the basis of the campaign that Participant Media ultimately activates.
The key, Stoner explained, is to focus on one goal at a time and find out where the tipping point is. If the film is highlighting a relatively new issue, the campaign’s first goal might involve raising awareness, “just putting something on the agenda.” If the film addresses a widely-acknowledged problem like hunger or global warming, the first goal might be to educate the audience on what actions they can take. Once you achieve your first goal, you can reevaluate and focus on the next step. Stoner’s strategy outline closely echoes recommendations in the Center’s own report on “Designing for Impact.”
Stoner gave the example of Participant’s Take Your Place campaign, organized around the 2012 documentary film “A Place at the Table,” to combat hunger in the United States. Participant worked with over a hundred NGOs to inspire action on both local and national levels by telling stories about SNAP, the food stamp program, and addressing the SNAP stigma. Stoner recalled how one woman who had been on SNAP came forward to thank them for challenging the stereotypes of people who use food stamps. “That's the power of putting a face on these issues," Stoner said. The Take Your Place campaign helped galvanize a movement that culminated in the signing of the Agriculture Act of 2014 the very morning of the conference.
Stoner attributes the success of the campaign in part to the involvement of multiple stakeholders and audiences. Filmmaker passion and commitment can make the difference between a good campaign and a great one, Stoner said. She explained how creating multiple entry points into a campaign through multimedia--games, for example--can draw millennials in and educate them at the same time. “Throw a little spinach in the popcorn and maybe no one will notice,” she laughed.
Stoner spoke on the importance of maintaining communication with partner NGOs and nonprofits even after the film debuts and continually evaluating the impact of your campaign. Impact measurement can be resource-heavy and time-consuming, but Participant is working with a variety of partner organizations on the Participant Index, a panel survey of media impact. Eventually they hope to make their research available online, so that impact media makers can incorporate the tool into their campaigns.
In the future, Stoner anticipates that “we’ll see a lot more melding of the media” as independent media makers adopt a “360-degree campaign perspective”--engaging people through social media, games for change, interactive films, and other innovative channels. The conference showcased several of these channels along with strategies for storytelling.
The first talk featured PRX Remix’s Erika Lantz, radio producer and Transom Story Workshop instructor Rob Rosenthal, and Metro Connection’s Rebecca Sheir. Sound engineer and American University professor Russell Williams led the conversation.
For Rosenthal, sound is an incredibly important part of any story because it’s how people have been telling stories for thousands of years. Most people know how to tell stories automatically: “We start with a character in a place and then... we talk about what happened next.” Radio producers and filmmakers tell stories in the same way. "It's elemental,” said Rosenthal. “It's fundamental to who we are." When students approach Rosenthal with questions about how to structure their stories, he asks them to tell the story on the spot, or while relaxing with friend. The way we tell stories naturally is at the core of good storytelling in the media.
Still, Williams reminded the audience that good sound requires careful planning. People are used to sound filling the room, but in storytelling, you want to recreate an intimate experience. Lantz agreed, pointing out that in everyday life, sound happens in physical space. She asked the audience to think about how sound bounces and travels. How does the rain sound when you’re outside, inside, under an umbrella? How does a voice sound when the speaker is to your left, to your right, across the room, under an umbrella with you? Considering these questions before you record the audio and incorporating the answers will help your listeners experience the scene. To demonstrate her point, she played a haunting clip from “You’re Not Alone,” a story in PRX's fictional podcast series “The Truth.”
Rosenthal brought up the subject of factual truth vs. felt truth, or the feeling that comes through in the way things are spoken, and explained that a good audio story has both. A good example of this is “War of the Worlds,” one of the most famous radio stories in US history. “War of the Worlds” also demonstrates the power of silence. As Lantz and Sheir pointed out, the moment where the reporter screams and goes silent is a terrifying “sonic moment” because the voice of reason is suddenly gone and the listeners are left to fill the empty space with their imaginations. “That's why it's important to get really evocative, primal sound,” Lantz added--so that the audience can picture exactly what’s happening.
Williams reminded the audience not to be afraid of the "naked canvas"--films without much music. Such films open the audience’s ears, making them strain to hear the next word. They also give the audience more room for interpretation. "Music is in some respects like emotional fascism,” said Rosenthal, prompting laughs and agreement from the audience. “It tells you exactly how you're supposed to feel and you have no say over the matter. I'd much rather rely on my writing and the tape to create the felt truth."
Silence is also a powerful tool for helping interview subjects open up. When you're interviewing someone, “don't feel like you need to keep asking questions,” said Lantz. “When you let them breathe for a second, they feel like they have to fill the silence and then they say something really interesting.” If they’re having trouble opening up, ask them to tell it to you as if you were a seventh grader or a friend at the bar.
Rosenthal said that good interviewing is about listening hard. Don’t stick too closely to your notes and don't shy away from deep emotions. For example, said Rosenthal, if the person starts crying, "don't move the microphone. Just nod." They'll let you know if they want you to stop recording. If you move the microphone away, they may think they’ve done something wrong and ruined the interview.
By the end of the interview, Rosenthal said, you should be exhausted, but you’ll have a really powerful story. Sheir pointed out that a powerful story is sometimes all you need to get people to take action on an issue. “If you get the hard takes, the crying moments--if you can get people to be honest with you--people will want to act and you won't have to hit them over the head with it,” she said. “The power of what you're doing will get people to act."
Towards the end of the talk, the on-stage interpreter signed the sounds of a storm through a lengthy clip, sparking a discussion on sound for the Deaf community and how we can create the equivalent of audio stories. Rosenthal suggested asking “What does sound look like?” alluding to the complimentary roles of image and audio.
After lunch, Center Director Pat Aufderheide sat down with Mountainfilm Festival Director David Holbrooke to have a conversation about why festivals matter. Holbrooke feels that festivals are an important venue for independent filmmakers because they generate a very unique energy around film projects that doesn’t come across online. "Festivals are dynamic,” he said, and based on “the idea that we're all in this together.”
Admittedly, filmmakers who participate in festivals face certain challenges. Travel and hotel expenses can add up, and sometimes timing or weather conditions lead to very small audiences, which can be discouraging. But the experience is worthwhile because festivals provide so many valuable opportunities, including the opportunity to see others’ work. Holbrooke recommended carving out a specific budget for festival expenses early on in production.
Aufderheide and Holbrooke pointed out that festivals are a good place to have maker-to-maker conversations. At a festival, filmmakers can share passion, intelligence, commitment, and energy. They meet other people who might be able to collaborate on projects or reach new audiences. Although new media technologies have made it easier to make a documentary independently, Holbrooke reminded the audience that “the hard part is getting your message out there once you have it.” Festivals are a place for that--a place to network and to get good feedback.
The best festivals, Holbrooke said, are the ones that really focus on their theme, that work on reaching audiences for the sake of the issues in the film, not just the film itself.
The guests for the second talk were Kunal Gupta of Babycastles and the Silent Barn, Colleen Macklin from Parsons The New School for Design, and Meghan Ventura of Games For Change. Game designer and American University professor Lindsay Grace led the discussion.
Although the topic of the panel was digital games, the speakers were quick to point out that digital games are rooted in the tradition of their analog predecessors. Macklin reminded the audience that games existed before written language; 5,000 years ago people were using the same six-sided dice we use today. Being able to tell stories and play games is part of human evolution, Macklin said: "Whether it's digital or non-digital, it's all coming from a very ancient place.” She highlighted the importance of non-digital games such as football and chess; those are impact games as well, she said, because they help keep kids in school.
So how do you know if your game should be digital or analog? It depends on your audience, Ventura said. Grace and Macklin pointed out that an advantage of downloadable analog games, or print-to-play games, is that people without iPads or game consoles can play them. These games therefore reach wider audiences. Because non-digital games are rule sets, Macklin added, they give players room to remix the rules and make changes. This kind of experimentation lets players learn how games work.
The main thing that games teach players is systems dynamics, providing valuable problem-solving experience. “The biggest problems that face us in the world are systemic,” Macklin said. "You can't isolate one thing from another." Learning to make games and play them well is about learning how systems work.
The speakers were wary, however, of games that try too hard to educate users. “It's important to know what games are good for. They're not a silver bullet,” cautioned Macklin. “You have to ask yourself what purpose you're pursuing,” Grace agreed, because "games sit in the strange space" between art and functionality. Games can tap into a wide range of behaviors, and some address serious social issues. But some games are just meant to be enjoyed, Grace said, or to “get people to stop and smell the roses.”
The speakers acknowledged that many people dismiss games as frivolous. Designers want to combat that, said Grace, but they also want people to have fun. Just playing "is one of the best ways for us to remember that we're human" said Macklin. "The frivolousness, the inconsequentialness of games is where their power is.” And in some cases, she said, just the existence of a game can raise awareness of an issue, regardless of the actual content of the game. Such games inspire players to learn more about the issue independently.
Whether we want them to or not, Gupta said, games are growing in popularity. People pay a lot of attention to games. We can make this a healthy culture by influencing what people are paying attention to--by bringing it all back to culture. For Gupta, games are an art form. Artwork creates a scene, which creates a community, which creates a movement. It's the same with games.
The problem, Gupta explained, is that designers don't have control over the distribution of games. The current economic model needs to shift, so that gaming can go back to being about people. “There needs to be diversity in ownership of all the distribution of video games," said Gupta. "We need to figure that out as a cultural prerogative."
Part of that shift should involve the creation of community spaces where people can come together through games. “The reinforcement that happens in an exhibition space is really important,” said Gupta. “It's a level of culture for the artists that has the impact of going from no voice to having many voices, so we're trying to make that a normal part of city life." Giving people a space in which to build their own games helps diversify ownership.
Festivals are an important outlet for independent game developers as well. Ventura described the Games for Change Festival as a place where people can experience cool independent games. “Something that we're starting to see more of is personal stories from independent developers," said Ventura. "Since gamemaking tools are getting more accessible, more people are making their own stories. And we love to see that.” Macklin referred to IndieCade as “the Sundance of video games” and described the Come Out & Play Festival, which uses an actual city as the gamespace in order to bring the community together.
Games are about exploring and sharing experiences. Macklin gave the example of a game made after its creator was asked how it felt to walk around as a transgender woman. "It's really about experiencing something on a visceral, emotional level,” said Macklin. That’s why diversity in gaming is so important--games are more nuanced, and will therefore feel more real, when created by people who understand the experiences represented in the game. Good games let players see multiple sides of an issue instead of simply making a generic statement, said Ventura.
In the future, we may see more games accompanying films and documentaries. The goal of such games would be to recreate in game form the experience the film wants to evoke, said Grace. Macklin agreed, adding that the game need not reproduce the content of the experience but rather the feeling of it. "Games are not good for facts,” she said. “Games are good for feelings.”
Overall, the speakers agreed that diversity is the main goal for the future. “We're really about getting more voices in games,” Macklin said. “Let's try to open up game-making to more diverse communities.” Diversity, she said, "is going to make or break the future of impact games."
The speakers for the third talk included Daniel Burwen of Cognito Comics, Greg Pak of Pak Man Productions, and Melissa Valeri from Common Cause. The discussion was led by media expert and American University professor Andrew Lih.
Burwen provided an exciting start to the third talk by showing the trailer for Operation Ajax, his interactive comic book app about CIA involvement in Iran. He walked the audience through the app, demonstrating how each touch causes a character movement, a sound effect, a change in music, or some combination of these. The app includes embedded reference material that would normally have ended up on the cutting room floor. The benefit of interactivity--and the strength of an iPad app--is that it lets you include that information in an engaging way. Burwen was able to incorporate a wide variety of media forms into Operation Ajax simply by having a character collect files--historical photographs, declassified documents, and actual video footage--that users can view and interact with.
Valeri introduced Common Cause’s online comic “Big Deal, Big Money” on net neutrality. The comic discusses the effects of constraints on net neutrality and the role of big money. Valeri explained that they created it because comics "have the greatest potential to be able to not only educate but to mobilize." Common Cause saw a 70-75% increase in traffic on their website after the comic went up. Valeri urged film- and media-makers to reach out to NGOs and nonprofits that share their goals about collaborating on projects, because these organizations are always looking for creative ways to connect with people. They welcome innovative ideas on how to tell stories that will engage people in important issues.
Pak shared his graphic novel Vision Machine, available as a free download in both print and interactive app form, about a world in which technology can record and transform everything you see. The comic deals with issues of security and privacy, as well as copyright and monetization. The app version lets you manipulate the comic in 3D as if you were holding it--which Pak admits isn't necessary for the story, but is pretty darn cool. The idea behind the app was to “let people step into the comic" and explore the issues it raises in more depth. The app is also integrated with social media. For example, tweets with the hashtag #visionmachine will appear inside the app.
Apps offer new opportunities for richer storytelling, said Lih. Still, all the speakers agreed that an app is not always the answer. In some circumstances, a website might be preferable. One advantage of websites, Burwen said, is that they can be published independently. That means no gatekeeping, no censorship or editing, no waiting for approval from a third party. Pak pointed out that, at least for now, the majority of apps are moderated by Apple, which means that most app-makers are “at the mercy of a single company.”
Valeri added that for organizers, it’s easier to get people to visit a website than to download an app, especially when working with a population such as the elderly who are less likely to own smartphones. Websites can be made iPad- and iPhone-friendly by having mobile versions. They can reach wider audiences by allowing for easier sharing through social media, which is largely web-based. And they are also more durable than apps. “Apps go obsolete all the time,” said Burwen. “It's the problem filmmakers face times 100,” added Pak. Eventually, current apps won't work with new operating systems. If their creators don't have the budget to upgrade, those apps will disappear.
Another challenge for app-designers is that people don’t always know what to do with an app. Apps "are like movies or books, but they don't live in a place like movies or books live,” said Pak. “It's a tough thing for people to wrap their heads around.” It’s a question of categorization, agreed Burwen. Interactive story apps don’t fall into any of the traditional categories, and just calling them “apps” groups them in with "freemium 95¢" games. We need to create a space for experimental stories.
In the meantime, the answer may be to diversify. Valeri recommended using a variety of media to get your message out, because different people respond to different types of media. More media gives you more ways to connect to people. Pak agreed, suggesting that media-makers put their material out in as many forms as possible: “If you can make it a website, do it. A radio story, do it. Reach more people.”
The Center for Media & Social Impact at American University, formerly the Center for Social Media, is an innovation lab and research center that studies, designs, and showcases media for social impact. The center is a project of the School of Communication, led by Jeffrey Rutenbeck, at American University in Washington, D.C.